Monday, December 7, 2015

Rodea The Sky Soldier for 3DS

Rodea The Sky Soldier has got a hell of a legacy behind it. It comes to us from producer Yuji Naka, former head of Sonic Team, and current head of Prope. In case you were wondering, Yuji Naka was the lead programmer for the Sonic games on the Genesis, and the producer of the series until Sonic Rush. He also served as executive producer on Sonic Riders, and producer and lead-programmer on Nights Into Dreams.  If you know anything at all about any of those games, you can see a lot of obvious influence from the other games Naka has made.
This year I've been covering a lot of games that have taken a long time to be released outside of Japan, and I don't intend to stop doing that just yet. I've still got the first two Trails In The Sky games on my schedule if you remember. The difference with this game is that it's taken forever to come out everywhere, not just outside of its home country. Rodea The Sky Soldier started development for the Wii back in 2010, and completed development in 2011, languishing for two years until Prope's publisher, Kadokawa Games officially announced the 3DS version back in 2013 as being nearly completed. During this time-period, our old friends at XSeed were jockying to publish the game in North America, but as you can tell by the box-art above, that didn't happen.
In 2014, they announced that they would be porting the game to Wii U, and packaging the Wii release with the Wii U version. And then finally, back in April of this year, the game saw a release in Japan, with the rest of the world getting a November release, published by Nippon Ichi Systems America.
I don't think I've ever seen a game that has just sat as long as this one did. I've certainly seen games that took a long time to develop, or ones that took a long time to localize, but I've never reviewed a game that was four years old by the time it saw release.
The gameplay basically amounts to Sonic The Hedgehog meets Nights Into Dreams, with a bit of Super Mario Galaxy thrown in for good measure. There are yellow things to collect, which pull you along in a line like the Lightspeed dash from Sonic Adventure, you fly around a bit like you did in Nights Into Dreams, you can pull off a Sonic-like spindash by pressing B, and there's a bit of a focus on manipulating gravity and the camera to your advantage like in Super Mario Galaxy.
The basics of the gameplay function perfectly fine. You jump into the air by pressing A, point your targeting reticle where you want to go, and press A again to go where you want to. You can press B to get there faster, or to attack a target. Whether or not you can stay in the air is determined by the fuel-gauge surrounding the crosshairs. If that runs out, you can burn collected yellow-things (Called Gravitons) to move a little further.You can also collect a hundred of them to get extra lives, which is practically essential in the later levels of the game. You can also rise vertically by pressing Y and descend quickly by pressing Y again. X is the button you use to activate the function of your equipped gear.
Something that irritates me about the equippable gear is that you can't have more than one of them equipped at once. This would be fine, except for the fact that the gear goes onto different parts of Rodea's body. The gear consists of a pair of boots, a DBZ-style targeting scouter, and a rifle that shoots homing-bullets. All of this gear could be worn at the same time without needing to unequip any of it. But that's what happens, the game removes them from Rodea's model. But that's just an issue of aesthetics, and not an actual issue. So, let's talk about the gear itself.
The first piece of gear you get is a rifle, which shoots homing-bullets. Hypothetically, those bullets would either fly towards the nearest enemy, or towards whatever you've targeted. In practice, the bullets usually just fly off in whatever direction they want, and don't hit whatever you're pointing your gun at. That's a fairly large issue when you're faced with an exploding barrier you want to shoot from far away, but your bullets keep veering off in random directions. This would be a larger issue if the rifle was a necessary item in the game beyond the level it's introduced in.
A more useful accessory is the boots, which allow you to use boost-pads on the ground, as well as allowing you to pull off some cool attacks, all of which are hard to accomplish, and tend to get in the way of actual gameplay by burning through your fuel when you're trying to stomp on the ground. This is because of an upgrade I applied which allows you to spindash across the ground like you're a goron from Majora's Mask. That works when you absolutely need to use it, but otherwise it's completely useless, and actually winds up being detrimental to the game as a whole, so I left the boots unequipped most of the time.
Thing is, if the boost-pads worked without the boots, then you wouldn't need them at all. Not like you do anyways, because you can literally walk, fly, or jump towards your destination without using the freaking boost-pads.
We now come the the targeting-system, which allows you to set up a chain of attacks in advance, and sometimes attack the same enemy more than once. The huge problem with the targeting-system is that it doesn't always work properly. Hell, this goes for the default targeting-system as well. Sometimes, when you target more than one enemy at a time (Or the same enemy twice) it just cuts out right after the first hit for some reason. Not always, just on some targets, and only when it's the most inconvenient. And even then, the scouter is practically redundant, since you can chain attacks just by hovering and targeting using the regular reticle. And you can chain attacks on a single enemy just by holding down B and tapping A. So not only is the scouter redundant, it doesn't always work.
And that leads me into an issue with the default targeting system. Sometimes, from any range, if you're boosting towards a moving enemy, Rodea will swerve around them and burn through his fuel, leaving him to fall, flailing to the ground, which is a fairly big problem if the ground happens to be electrified, or covered in acid, or a million miles below you.
I can't count the amount of times when I was just barely off the edge of a platform and I was trying to conserve my gravitons so I could boost straight over to the edge of the platform and get all my fuel back. But if you don't start burning gravitons almost immediately after you run out of fuel when you don't have ground beneath you, Rodea just flops out limp and dies. Even when you have the ability to pull off an awesome recovery, you still get flopped out dead. And sometimes, during the death animation, Rodea will land on the freaking platform! And that's happened at least five times during the course of the game. I'm sorry, that just doesn't make any sense. The worst part about that is it costs you a life. That's right, this game has a lives system. Nice to know that someone is keeping that archaic nonsense alive. Especially in the latter stages of the game when the levels are drawn-out longer with very few lives scattered throughout the area. Sure, there are plenty of checkpoints, but if you lose all your lives, you go back to the beginning of the level. This is especially bad during the last two levels of the game, which are both just multi-stage boss-fights. Level 24 consists of two difficult boss-fights, one right after another, the latter of which comes straight out of nowhere, and doesn't resemble the first boss in any way. I'd gotten eight lives by grinding for them in previous levels, and I'd spent six of them fighting the first boss of Level 24. Then along came the second boss, who took away the last of my lives, forcing me to go back to the beginning of the level. Except I didn't, because I quit the level and got myself ten more lives, and finished it up.
Then I got to the final level, and the final boss, Emperor Geardo. He has three stages, with checkpoints in between them, but if you lose all your lives, you gotta go all the way back to the beginning. And since the game only gives you two lives to start with, you pretty much have to go back to previous levels and harvest lives if you want to stand any decent chance of beating him. The screenshot to the left was taken on my first attempt at the boss, right after I'd completed Level 24. To put this into perspective, I had to try five times before I finally beat him. The three times between the first try and the last try I was just running on the default two lives just to see if I could make it. On the last try, I'd scrounged up fifteen lives, and I used five of them in the final attempt. A good tip for this game is to scrounge up as many lives as you can tolerate before facing a boss.
Unless of course you're fighting the first boss, who's a massive pushover. You can take him down in like three hits, and then he starts talking on his cellphone with his boss.
Generally speaking, the smaller the boss is in this game, the less interesting they are, except for the bosses in Level 24, which are actually pretty cool to fight, if a bit easy once you figure them out.
This brings us to the story, which seems to be pretty lacking compared to the Sonic games. It essentially amounts to Sonic The Hedgehog meets Mega Man, with a bit of Terminator 2, Highlander, and Back To The Future thrown in towards the end for good measure. That description makes it sound a lot more interesting than it is, since I was never entirely sure what was going on, or why we were doing what we were doing. The general gist of the story is as follows: You are Rodea, a robot who works for Princess Cecilia. You're trying to help her escape from Emperor Geardo of Naga and keep the Key of Time out of his hands when she gives you half of the key (Instead of just destroying it for some reason) and transports you to a desert, where Rodea punches the ground, his arm falls off, and he goes into a coma for a thousand years for absolutely no reason. That's all in the prologue to the freaking game. There'are also little tutorial in the beginning, which seems pretty redundant, since there's another tutorial almost immediately after it that tells you almost exactly the same thing. It's almost like the prologue was tacked-on as an afterthought. There are other ways it seems pretty unnecessary which I'll get into later.
A thousand years later, Rodea wakes up, having been repaired by a girl named Ion, who also stuck a gear on his shoulder for some reason. All of his memories are gone, all of his friends and most of his enemies are dead, and nobody remembers the war anymore. That's an incredibly anticlimactic start to the game as far as I'm concerned, since it means that you're fighting an incredibly weakened enemy as opposed to being an insignificant little speck going up against an empire.
God only knows how a robot that was sitting out in the desert for a thousand years is still functioning, you'd think that he'd have eroded away eventually.
Recently, the remnants of the machine army have come back and started attacking citizens of Garuda, the country that Naga was trying to invade a thousand years ago. For some reason, the machine soldiers are still working too, as well as all of Rodea's robot siblings, who are in charge of the new invasion. One of those siblings is the first boss in the game. After you beat him, he answers his phone and flies off. And instead of going after him, Ion forces you to stick around and look for a crying child, named Tonio. And after you find him, you're forced to stick around and harvest herbs that can cure his sick sister! Excuse me Ion, I'm trying to save the world here, maybe you should handle harvesting those herbs while I go after that freaking robot!
Over time, Rodea manages to perform a data recovery on himself to get all his memories back. It's also implied that Ion might have had something to do with his memory being erased, but that little plot-thread is never really resolved.
Rodea and Ion travel around Geruda destroying the Chronos Towers that link Geruda to Naga. Seems a bit late to be doing that, since the machine-soldiers have already invaded. God only knows what they hope to accomplish by killing all the ancient machines and destroying the towers. Maybe there are more soldiers in Naga that haven't arrived yet, or maybe Rodea is just making up for lost time and doing what he should have done a thousand years ago.
While Rodea is doing that, he and Ion stop by her hometown for a little bit. Apparently it's hidden, but there's no reason it needs to be hidden, since there haven't been any incursions by Naga for a thousand years. Ion somehow gets kidnapped, and a few of the townsfolk think to blame it on Rodea and try to beat him up. Completely forgetting that he just beat a giant robot snake beforehand. Or maybe Ion didn't tell them.
Anyways, they wind up teaming-up to go find Ion, and it's at this point that we find out that Tonio's sister just won't shut up. It's nice to know that the characters in the game are just as annoyed with her as the player is, because at one point in the game, Rodea tells her (And by extension the rest of the freaking townsfolk who've tagged along with him) to be quiet.
Anyways, Rodea beats up another one of his siblings, and comes back to town, where they find out how the robots figured out where the hidden town was. It's at this point we find out that Tonio's sister is suffering from a terminal case of stupidity, and not any real illnesses.
Take a look at the screenshot to the left. This isn't something made by a little kid in MS Paint, that's an actual screenshot I took from the game. This was the art-style they decided to use for the flashback sequence to explain that whole little abduction section of the game. This little FMV is supposed to explain how the machine-soldiers found the village, but it doesn't really do that.
Okay, let's explain what happens in that FMV. Tonio's sister sits down on a stump, sees this bird, and tells it about her village. One of the robots throws its voice into the bird and he zooms off to find more robots to invade with. But instead of just taking over the village, they just kidnap Ion. And guess what? Rodea comes after them and beats them up. This actually happened, and it's never brought up again.
After Rodea destroys all the Chronos Towers, he gets ambushed by another robot who's extremely powerful and somehow happens to have the other half of the Key of Time. He beats up Rodea, takes the other half of the key, sticks it into Rodea's chest and turns it for some reason. Then he opens up a portal to a thousand years in the past, tells Rodea that this is his chance to save Cecilia, and goes off to tell Geardo what he needs to know to win the war. This is the point where it turns into Terminator, since we have robots trying to take over the world by going back in time to prevent the resistance from arising.
Rodea and Ion fly through the portal, Rodea forgets that he can fly when he's trying to save Cecilia, and she's never heard from again. No clue as to whether she died right there or not, and the game never actually tells you if she dies or not.
Anyways, Rodea storms through the Naga fortress. And no, this isn't straightforward in the slightest. The last several levels of the game are complicated, well-designed, and fun to play. The problem is that the lives-system gets in the way. Due to the levels being extremely long, the checkpoints are a little too far apart. This is only a minor issue, especially compared to how the lives system affects these final levels. Due to the fact that the game has a lives system, once you lose all of them, you're forced to go back to the beginning of the level. This is the same issue that I mentioned above with the last three bosses in the game. The reason I bring this up again is because it irritated the hell out of me, and I needed to bring across exactly how much it irritated me.
We now come to the final-boss of the game, which is essentially a less interesting take on Chaos from Sonic Adventure. He's got feelers you have to attack, then after you get through all of those, you get sucked up inside those ventilation pipes you see to the left, and kill him from the inside until his chest opens up and you can attack the jewel in the middle. This was a pretty awesome boss-fight, but like I said before, it's hampered by the presence of the lives-system.
Now we come to the actual technical issues with the game as opposed to just game-design issues. For one thing, there's plenty of slowdown during the fight against the final boss. I target the feelers, boost towards it, and the game slows to a freaking crawl. This isn't the kinda slowdown that you could maybe appreciate giving you some extra time to react, this is the kinda slowdown that's outright freaking annoying. There are other issues with slowdown throughout some of the more complex levels, but for the most part it's not that big an issue throughout the rest of the game. I only played it on 3DS, so I don't know if any of the performance issues are solved on New3DS or not. I've heard they were, but I haven't seen it in action myself.
But there are other technical issues which probably wouldn't be solved by more powerful hardware. For instance, there are plenty of times when I've somehow gotten stuck in the ceiling, or whatever surface happened to be above me. Then there's the fact that Rodea has a tough time navigating edges while he's flying, which is a massive pain during the final-boss when you're trying to climb multi-level towers to get above the freaking acid. That's especially annoying when he starts wrapping feelers around the towers and shocking them with electricity. Even more annoying is when he whips out his laser-wave. But the issue in the screenshot above is especially annoying, since that level took place in closed corridors with ceilings everywhere. Hover too high and you got stuck in the ceiling for a little while. Taking a look at the credits, I see that Digital Hearts worked on quality-assurance for this game. Not to disparage them, but they were the QA team who worked on Lord of Magna, and we all know how many bugs that game had.
Finally, we come to the full-motion videos. The screenshot to the left is one of the worst examples in the game that I could find, barring the next screenshot I took. Take a look at their mouths, especially the two on the left, and look at the rest of the stuff in the background. I don't know if it was just the way they compressed the FMV's so they'd fit onto the cartridge, or if this was how they looked in the Wii and Wii U versions of the game. No matter how the source FMV's looked, I can't see much that makes the FMV's look better than the real-time graphics. Partially because the colors look pretty washed-out, and partially because I just can't see the point in using full-motion video in really any of the situations it's used in. The models don't look too much more detailed than the ones in the game, the textures certainly don't look much better, and there's never anything so complex going on that couldn't be accomplished using the assets in the game itself. There's nothing overly cinematic happening that could have necessitated pre-rendered cutscenes. No major panning shots, no complex effects, and not a whole lot is usually being rendered. And there's a fairly massive issue with the FMV's. For some reason they don't fill the whole screen. I don't know why, I don't know how, but they just simply don't. If they had the assets kicking around, they should have just re-rendered them to fit the aspect-ratio of the 3DS. I checked out some footage of the Wii U version for completely unrelated reasons, and for some reason, the cinematics fit the 16:9 aspect ration.
This brings me to another problem I had with the game. There are three kinds of cutscenes. There are the Sonic Rush-style portraits yammering at each other with word-boxes below them, then you have the FMV's, then you have the odd real-time cutscene. This irritates the crap out of me, and I'm not exactly sure why. It's pretty inconsistent, for one thing. Important events don't always happen during FMV's, sometimes they happen during portrait-yammering, and sometimes we see absolutely pointless stuff happening during FMV's.
Then there's the fact that the characters jaws flap up and down during portrait cutscenes, but they don't match the voices in the slightest, which goes for the Japanese voice-track as well as the English voice-track. It looks like they just looped the lip-flaps infinitely until the actors were done speaking.
Which brings us to the voice-acting. The English cast all sound like they're putting on really bad impressions of the cast of Sonic X, which I can't say doesn't make some kind of sense. The odd thing is that I can't even find out who the English cast was. They're not named in the credits, Wikipedia doesn't have a cast entry for them, and imdb doesn't even have a page for the game. It's almost like they didn't want anyone to know who they were. The English voice-acting is pretty bad, but the Japanese voice-acting is better. The problem is that during gameplay, the captions are shown on the bottom screen of the 3DS, which is a bit of a pain to try and watch during high-action parts of the game. That's a pretty bad thing when characters are feeding you important bits of information during combat, and you only know a few words of Japanese. I certainly know enough to be able to tell when the captions are wrong, but not enough to know what they're saying. So I stuck to the English voiceover so I could tell what was going on.
This brings me to an issue with the translation. Every now and again, there are words that seem utterly out of place, almost as if the translator didn't totally know what they were doing. Every now and again it sounds like the kinda translation you sometimes see in Japanese songs which have been re-sung in English, where the words don't totally match up to the concepts they're trying to convey. It doesn't happen all the time, just often enough for me to notice it. It's incredibly strange to see that kind of thing in a game like this, especially since the majority of the translation seems pretty good.
Moving onto the music, it's fine. Okay. Just sorta there. Nothing really jumped out at me in the default soundtrack like music from a Sonic game. There was one song that I listened to that was an optional track that I really liked, but because it's never actually used in the game itself, I don't really count that. There's no epic rock tune playing during the final boss-fight, Rodea doesn't have an awesome theme-song that plays whenever he's doing something cool, the lead bad-guy doesn't have a cool theme-song, and while the music that plays during the individual levels is fine, it might as well have been stock music for all the memorability it has. Think back to Sonic The Hedgehog on the Genesis. You probably remember the title-screen song, Eggman's theme, Green Hill Zone, quite a few tracks from other levels in the game... Now think about Rodea The Sky Soldier, and try to remember any of the music in the game. I'm willing to bet that you can't.
Let's talk camera-controls now. You can rotate the camera while on the ground with the L and R buttons, and that's it. You can't tilt the camera up and down at all while on foot. You can center the camera by holding L or R, but it rotates the camera ninety-degrees before centering, which is a massive pain when you're trying to center the camera by a couple of degrees. There's an option to control the camera with the 3DS's gyroscope, but that only works in the air, and makes targeting a lot harder, so it really doesn't serve any purpose other than making it a lot harder to aim. There's an unlockable first-person mode you can access if you pay fifteen silver coins, but that's just the regular controls from a first-person perspective, and it's incredibly difficult to navigate when your camera is full of wall. I looked it up, and I couldn't find any evidence suggesting that this game has any option to be played with a Circle-Pad Pro, either online, or in the game itself. Most of the 3DS games I've played that let you use the Circle-Pad Pro have some option in the menu that lets you use it, but this game doesn't have that. Then there's the fact that there are two options screens in the game, neither of which are accessible during gameplay. Technically there are three options screens, since the option for the first-person mode is inside the unlock menu, which also has options for controlling the music, and what character you're playing as. The first options menu is solely dedicated to languages (Voiceover and captions), and is only accessible from the title-screen. The second options menu is only accessible by pressing Y on the world-map, and controls the audio-levels, how often your support characters yammer at you, and whether or not you're using gyro-control. That's something I never understood in a lot of games, since if you'd turned on an irritating feature to see what it did, surely you'd want to be able to turn it off as well! Even then, why would you have three options screens in a game? Even with one as an unlockables screen, you could just do what Fire Emblem Awakening did and stick the unlockable music tracks into the regular menu.
Going back to camera-controls, they feel a bit like the ones from Sonic Adventure, but without the same kind of analog precision that game had to its camera. It's strange, especially since Ocarina of Time had much better camera controls back on the N64, and it had even less control over the camera! I'd hope that the Wii and Wii U versions of the game had better camera controls, since both of those have more options.
Finally, we get to the art-style and general design of the game. Personally speaking, aside from Rodea and Geardo's final form, I didn't particularly care for the character-design in this game. The colors are all muted pastels, without the same level of vibrancy that Sonic The Hedgehog games have. The characters don't have the same level of elegant design the cast of Sonic has. Everything has this overcomplicated, angular quality to it, without the same smooth detailing I liked about the Sonic characters. The levels pretty much look fine, but they don't have the same sort of colorful flair to them as ones from say, Sonic Adventure, or Super Mario Galaxy.
All in all, Rodea The Sky Soldier isn't a bad game by any means, but it doesn't grab me the same way my favorite Sonic games do. At its best, Rodea The Sky Soldier is pretty freaking good. At its worst, it's a bit of a glitchy mess, at least on 3DS. On average, it's a decent game with some cool ideas, but it's not as interesting as, say, the other Sonic-inspired game that came out this year. Look forward to my review and Let's Play of that sometime soon.
In the end, I give Rodea The Sky Soldier a 6.7* rating. I'll see you next week, hopefully. I'll be at Geek-O-Nomicon that weekend, so the review might wind up being a bit late.

Game provided for review by Nippon Ichi Systems America. Cover image provided by NIS America. Screenshots taken by me.